The Beginning of the End of Ancient Egypt


By Bob Brier, Long Island University

Ramses III leaves us with a little bit of a mystery. He rules for about 30 years, but his temple, Medinet Habu, “United With Eternity”, tells us only about the first 11 years of his reign. There is nothing about the last two decades that he ruled for which may be a sign that things were starting to go downhill. There was a plot to kill him – he couldn’t have been that secure on his throne. So it looks like even during the time of Ramses III, things are slipping away, and that Egypt is going downhill already.

Pyramids in Egyptian desert
As the Ramses’ dynasty neared its end, Egypt too neared its downfall. (Image: givaga/Shutterstock)

Sign of Stability

Ramses III is succeeded by his son Ramses IV who rules for about six years. And the good thing—the sign that there’s still a little bit of wealth left, a little bit of power—is that he sends an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat.

The Wadi Hammamat is a long march from Thebes towards the Red Sea across a desert. He sends the expedition because he wants the black stones for sarcophagi, for buildings, for temples. So at least there’s a sign that Egypt is still somewhat stable, even tough things may be slipping away gradually.

The Beginning of Egypt’s Fall

Ramses III’s other son, Ramses V, is a legitimate successor, but we don’t know much about him. However, there is one interesting thing about his mummy though – he has spots on his face. We’re pretty sure that his is the earliest case of smallpox recorded.

And Ramses VI, the other son of Ramses III, doesn’t reign too long. But we do know that Egypt is starting to slip out from under him. Foreign territories are lost, they no longer send mining expeditions to the Sinai for turquoise, they have neither the power, nor the army.

During the next reign of Ramses VII, there’s an economic turmoil. Egypt went through inflation with the prices of everything going sky-high.

Not much is known about the reign of Ramses VIII. Moving on to Ramses IX, he has a pretty long reign. But the only thing we know really for his reign—there were tomb robbers. This is when the royal tombs are robbed and when we start to get real robbing in the Valley of the Kings. This leads us to believe that they could no longer protect the Valley. This is where you have the body of Ramses the Great and the body of Ramses III, the great Egyptian kings, and they’re being plundered.

We have some court records dating back to the reign of Ramses IX, when they caught the thieves. And this is what one of them is saying:

“The noble mummy of this king was all covered with gold. And his inner coffins were bedizened with gold and silver, inside and outside, with inlays of all kinds of precious stones. We appropriated the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. And his eye amulets his ornaments which were around his neck. And in the coffins in which he lay, we found the royal wife likewise. And we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins. We stole their outfit, which we found on them consisting of objects of gold silver bronze and divided them up among ourselves. We made this gold which we found on these two gods into eight parts.”

So there were probably eight robbers who took the gold, but they were caught. So we know that Egypt is really going downhill rather quickly, and it is indeed sad to see Egypt go down from the time of greatness, to where the mummies are being robbed.

End of Egypt with the End of Dynasty?

Ramses X is the next king, about whose reign we only know that all foreign territories are lost.

But now we come to the last king of the dynasty—Ramses XI whose reign has been strange in many aspects. First, we have a papyrus from his time, which was originally thought to be more literary than historic, but it’s probably historical. It’s called the “Tale of Wenamun.”

picture of pharaoh on Ramses IX's tomb
The reign of Ramses IX proved to be a final nail in the coffin. (Image: Achiaos/Shutterstock)

Wenamun was an official who was sent to Byblos to bring back wood—cedar, for the pharaoh’s ships, for the royal barks in the shrines and for the big doors of the temples. Wenamun, the king’s ambassador, is robbed along the way. So then he arrives at Byblos, he asks for the cedars of Lebanon claiming to have a statue of Amun. Amun, who was called “Amun of the Road”, is the patriot saint of travelers. When the prince asks for money in exchange of wood, he is reminded of their long association built over the years.

Eventually, somehow Wenamun talks the prince of Byblos into giving him the wood, the cedars, probably the king sends money. But he waited for almost a year. And finally the cedars are felled. They wait by the river until they’re loaded on ships, and finally he returns.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The ‘King’ship of Heri Hor

But one of the things that is curious about this “Tale of Wenamun” is that it doesn’t talk about Ramses XI. It talks about Heri-Hor. And this is something that happens during the reign of Ramses XI that is shocking. Never in the time of a pharaoh had this happened.

A high priest of Amun, by the name of Heri-Hor, builds his own temple at Karnak Temple, dedicated to Khonsu, the son of Amun and Mut, and shows himself on the temple as large as the king. Not only that, a little later on in the reign, year 24 of Ramses XI, he writes his name in a cartouche which symbolizes the king’s power.

So, we have the high priest of Amun claiming that he is the king of Egypt. Now, how is this possible? Well it must be remembered that Ramses XI is ruling in the north. He may have all he can handle in the north. So Heri-Hor, this high priest, calls himself a king. Things are, in reality, slipping away.

Common Questions about the Beginning of the End of Ancient Egypt

Q: Was Egypt stable during the reign of Ramses IV?

Ramses IV sends an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat which is a sign that Egypt is still somewhat stable.

Q: Which high priest called himself a king?

Heri-Hor the high priest of Amun called himself a king.

Q: During whose reign do we see plundering in Egypt?

It was during the reign of Ramses IX that there were instances of plundering and tomb robberies.

Keep Reading
The Healer Priests of Ancient Egyptian Temples
The Secret Tombs of Ancient Egypt
Life in Hellenistic Egypt